[Solving the Content Problem] The Smörgåsbord: Adding different subgames for different playstyles

dessert_buffet

skenmy@flickr

MMOs have always given players some freedom to pick what activity they prefer to do when they log in. This is one of the aspects that makes them so different from other types of games. For sure, themepark games tend to adhere to the RPG model and prod people in the direction of levelling, or at least in the direction of whatever the other players are probably doing, but players do expect to have some standard options.

For these to make sense as addressing the content problem, these subgames need to have completely separate progression mechanics from each other. I’m not talking here about adding achievements to existing content, but about offering something for totally separate playing styles. You could think of it as being a way to attract more players to the same game, by catering for different gaming tastes.

For example, MMOs often include an economic simulation. Players progress by making gold via trade (or other in game activities). A player who chooses to focus on this subgame can do it largely independently of (for example) endgame raiding or PvP. There can be plenty of depth in a good economic simulation – you only need to look at the sheer number of gold making WoW blogs to see how many different markets and approaches there are to playing this subgame. While the economy can be connected to every other part of the game, in a separated presentation (like WoW), you never actually need to play the economy beyond selling loot that you picked up while levelling. You could happily ignore it.

Crafting  can also be a separate minigame of its own. Players progress by learning tradeskills (maybe multiple tradeskills on multiple alts) and figuring out how to acquire the materials and make the items that they want. Plenty of players enjoy crafting who never have any intention of spending much time trading. It can be separate.

PvP is another very common playing style that is offered as a separate minigame by themepark MMOs. Separate again means a completely separate progression and gearing path. Players who enjoy PvP can often do this without ever touching PvE (after they have levelled).

So: separating playing styles? Is it a good or a bad thing

There are two ways to look at this.

1. The first is that the ideal MMO (probably a sandbox) should have an integrated playerbase. It should be focussed on its niche, and every part of the game should feed into every other part to encourage players to interact. For example, there should not be artificial boundaries preventing PvPers from dominating some aspect of the economy (maybe by annexing some area where rare drops can be found) and at the same time, a player who participates in all aspects of the game (or is in a guild which does) should be able to dominate a player who doesn’t. If the game is large enough and the separate activities have enough depth, it won’t be possible for a single player or guild to dominate every aspect so there will be plenty of room for players  to specialise and co-operate. So there will still be plenty of choice for players, they can still pick which aspects of the game they prefer to focus on. They will just have to live with the consequences.

Note: this ideal would require quite a large, active sandbox game to really work. (This is the problem with a lot of the early ideas about ideal MMOs.)

2. The second is the buffet or smorgasbord approach. The game is like a buffet table, players can pick and choose which activities they want to do. More importantly, they can pick the activities which they want to avoid. There will be communities in game which focus on different activities and that’s fine. The game can never be as integrated as a type 1 MMO, the separate gaming bubbles won’t really affect each other. But if people want to PvP all the time then they can, and if they want to never PvP then they don’t have to.

It is true that there are many ways for players to cooperate or compete in MMOs that don’t involve beating the tar out of each other in PvP. You can argue that the economic game is a form of PvP also, which is true. But from a gameplay perspective, it’s a very different way of getting players to interact. There is plenty of competition but the raw aggression (and bad behaviour) that is so intimidating to so many players just isn’t as great an issue. It also can be slower paced and put more emphasis on strategic thinking.

Over time, players have seemed to prefer type 2 games. Even though type 1 games are probably more immersive and function better as integrated worlds. It might be fairer to say that either Type 1 favours a niche audience, or else that devs could do a better job with Type 1 if they stopped trying to shoehorn PvP into every game, since PvP tends to dominate games where it is not kept totally separate.

Introducing new minigames

I want to give some examples of separated minigames in MMOs, to show how different devs have used this as a way to solve the content problem.

  • Skirmishes in LOTRO. This is fairly brilliant design. The skirmishes are PvE instances that can scale from single player up to 12 people. They have their own queue. When running skirmishes you can progress your own skirmish soldier (a companion NPC who can be tank/ healer/ ranged or melee dps/ etc) via skirmish points. So there is a completely separate progression mechanic. You can also use skirmish points to buy levelling gear, cosmetic gear, and reputation items. Plus the skirmishes have their own achievements. Although skirmishes are integrated into some of the legendary book quests (and it would be an advantage to have a levelled skirmish soldier for these), they aren’t required outside this.
  • Pet battles in WoW. Another fairly brilliant design. It’s pokemon, in warcraft. You can go catch wild pets, have them fight other pets or other trainers. I’m not sure what you really get from pet battles other than the thrill of collecting more pets, or the occasional lucky battlestone drop that you can use to upgrade pets. But it’s fun, there’s some depth to it, and it’s very separate from the main game.
  • PvP in Warhammer Online. This is a fairly typical example of themepark PvP. You earn your progression points and gear by engaging in PvP. You may have special PvP abilities that you can buy with PvP points. While you can use your PvE gear in PvP, it isn’t optimal because the PvP gear has specialised stats.
  • Housing in EQ2. You get a house fairly early on in EQ2, and there is a huge array of housing items to collect and place. Fitting out and decorating both individual houses and guildhalls has pretty much become a separated minigame of its own.
  • Wormholes in EVE. EVE isn’t my speciality, but this is syncaine’s description. The reason I count this as a separated game is that it seems perfectly possible for people who enjoy wormhole play to focus on them and for people who don’t to never feel the need to go near them.
  • Space battles in SWTOR. A set of graded on rails space missions, with their own daily quests, tokens, and ship related loot. Bioware never really felt very committed to space battles, they’re fun but limited.

Raiding in WoW used to be a very separated game. The only way to get raid gear was to raid. As time goes on, players are now far more encouraged to dip into raiding as part of a general PvE playing style via LFR (ie. much easier to get into random raids), and have a much wider range of gear available for raiding.

Wildstar is touting separate player paths, and no doubt we’ll get to hear more about how those work out in practice as the game lurches towards release. My personal doubt is how well this caters for players who might be in a mood to fight/soldier one day and feel more like exploring the next. I don’t personally want to be forced to commit to one primary playstyle at the start of a new game and then be told I need to roll a new alt if I want to try something else. There’s separated and then there’s separated.

Separated minigames as content solution?

Both the good and bad sides about separated games is that they are all optional. It is possible for a dev to put a lot of effort into creating a new minigame and for the player base to collectively say meh. (PvP in City of Heroes is an example of a separated game that never really took off, the majority of players just weren’t that interested.)

It is also possible for devs to put a lot of effort into developing a minigame and then to abandon it to its own devices and not add any interesting new tweaks or content in future expansions. Housing in LOTRO feels a bit stagnant for that reason. The houses are nice, decorating them is cool, but there’s not really much to do with your house and it feels like abandoned content.

At its best though, separate minigames do give players a much wider choice of in game activities. And minigames with good depth can potentially add a lot of depth and replayability to the game world. On the downside, they can make a game feel far more complex, and it isn’t always clear to new players which content is optional, and how optional it really is.